Germans, Japs Copy American Fighters

Basic similarity makes spotting errors frequent in combat zones

More than one geopolitical expert has declared that the present world conflict actually began when Spain resisted Franco's Fascist legions in the Spring of 1936 — nearly forty months before Hitler's rape of Poland. But from the spotter's viewpoint, fighter plane types which served during those early war months have little in common with current combat planes. The war-time dearth of design originality has combined with an increased number of belligerents to make accurate identification of present-day fighters and interceptors a genuine contribution to our military success.

Fighting a battle for survival which assumes greater stature with each succeeding Nazi thrust, the Loyalists depended largely on Russian-built Mosca monoplanes, derived from the Boeing P-26, and the versatile Chato biplane, also made in Russia. On the Fascist side, most of the fighting was done by Messerschmitt 109, Heinkel 70, and Heinkel 112, and Breda 65 monoplanes, and by Fiat CR-32 and Heinkel 51 biplanes. Obviously, accurate spotting presented few problems because of the sparsity of plane types. Furthermore, the "friend or foe" question was easily answered because the Loyalist planes were both radial-powered and all but the Breda among Franco's planes were fitted with liquid-cooled engines.

Study of fighter planes now active in war theatres on six continents reveals a striking, and confusing, contrast to this early spotting simplicity. In the first place, no fighter plane had appeared until late this summer which had not actually been designed prior to Hitler's Polish putsch. Because the world was ostensibly peaceful prior to September, 1939, international interchange of aeronautical ideas was practical. For that reason, the first Messerschmitt prototype used a Rolls-Royce engine, while Seversky, fore-runners of the Republic Thunderbolt and Curtiss fighter designs, found their way to Japan. As a result, the striking similarity of some belligerent fighter planes of today is hardly surprising. For example, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, the Curtiss Warhawk, Messerschmitt's 109, and the Heinkel 113 bear sufficient external resemblance to confuse too many careless observers. Actually, they all carry many more distinguishing features than American automobiles. It has been said that the average English schoolboy can tell them apart with the naked eye even when they fly at several thousand feet. Furthermore, the operational ceilings of these planes are so varied that their very distance from the observer sometimes gives the tip-off to their identity.

Among the radial engine fighters, there are fewer general similarities, but actual resemblances are much closer. The Mitsubishi 00, for instance, is almost a dead ringer for Germany's Focke-Wulf 190. These two planes, in turn, could easily be twins to the Vultee P-66 and the Koolhoven FK-58, the latter a Dutch plane now serving the United Nations on several fronts. At the same time, the Sento Ki 001 bears some resemblance to the Republic P-43 and P-47 and the Jap Type 95 is a licensed copy of the Seversky P-35. Altogether, Nippon's copyist minds have provided the main causes for Allied controversy on specifications and characteristics of the Jap planes active in the Pacific sector. That Air News was able to publish accurate silhouettes and specifications on the Zero last June, three months before first actual photos of the plane were released in this country, can be explained by an editor's subscription to a Netherlands Indies magazine, which made the last boat to leave Batavia before Jap occupation.

Because fighter planes which served during the first thirty war months were designed in peacetime, they all bore some resemblances regardless of nationality. But designs borne since 1939, now appearing in combat, are relatively easy to identify. The Lockheed P-38, the Grumman Skyrocket, Focke-Wulf's 187, and the Westland Whirlwind, all twin-engine fighters, can be identified by twin-tail booms, radial nacelles and dihedral twin-tail, narrow vertical tail surfaces, and cruciform tail respectively. However, Russia's YAK-4 and PE-2 and the Messerschmitt 110 are almost identical, with rudder shapes providing principal points of recognition. The North American P-51, now blasting German ground forces in France, and Italy's Macchi 202, both liquid-cooled single-engine fighters, bear some resemblance which is heightened by the fact that both are low-altitude planes used primarily for ground cooperation.

There will be newer planes in combat before this reaches print — and several designs developed from the Hurricane pattern will even outperform this famous warrior. Obviously, they will bear many external resemblances which may confuse pilots and ground observers alike. In the meantime, Italy's new Reggiane 2001 and 2002 present the main spotting problems. Powered by Daimler-Benz engines, their wide wasp tail, an Italian tradition, supplies the only external variance from the Messerschmitt design which they follow.

This article was originally published in the December, 1942, "Complete Spotter's Guide" issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 6, pp 32-33.
Air News was published on newsprint in 10½" × 13½" format.
The original article includes 6 photos: Me-109F, PE-2, CR-42, Hurricane, Me-110, Chato.
Photos credited to Air News, European, Sovfoto, British Combine.